help with haemochromatosis / iron overload

Known as the Irish curse and nicknamed the ‘Celtic gene’, Haemochromatosis is the most common genetic disorder in Ireland, where it estimated that one in five people carry the gene. It is also high amongst people with Irish heritage globally. Haemochromatosis is a condition that causes the body to absorb and store too much iron which can then harm normal healthy functions and if untreated trigger serious organ damage. Iron overload is also implicated in diabetes, dementia, chronic fatigue syndromes and many other complaints.

In fact there are two types of haemochromatosis:

Primary haemochromatosis – the inherited type; So while one in five are carriers of then flawed HFE gene, they won’t necessarily show any symptoms in their lifetime but may pass the condition on to their children if the second parent is also a carrier of the mutated HFE gene and the child receives the set. Not every child will inherit both genes, and not every child of a double set from carrier parents will develop the condition either. It is still not currently understood what factors contribute to full development.

gene inheritance odds – if both parents have the gene; currently it is estimated that there is a 1-in-2 chance that a conceived baby will receive one normal HFE gene and one mutated HFE gene and so be a carrier but not develop the condition. There is a 1-in-4 chance that a pair of mutated HFE genes will be received and then the potential exists to develop haemochromatosis at some stage

The second type known as secondary haemochromatosis is a triggered version, not related to genetics, often as a result of chronic liver disease, or from conditions involving blood transfusions. Approximately 1 in every 80 Irish people are at risk of developing one or the other. It’s roughly 1 in every 200 for other European gene pools. The treatment protocol for both is the same.

The conventional treatment is a phlebotomy – to give blood, this removes the iron rich blood and triggers the release of stored iron to make new blood cells and so resets the system for a while – there are outpatient appointments and often mobile clinics. The other treatment option is iron chelation – taking medicine that binds to excess iron and also decreases ferritin levels. The ‘how long for’ of either treatment depends on many factors including age and dietary factors. As we age we tend to store more iron. And if you eat a lot of meat and other iron rich foods then that will speed up the need to donate again.

But you have options too, there are dietary considerations and herbal support. First big tip – throw out your iron pots and pans. There is an ionic transfer when cooking in those that adds iron to the meal and helps pull more iron from the ingredients. Get ceramic or copper.

Dietary options – Consider a dietary lifestyle change; vegetarianism is a good option as the heme iron in animal based foods is quantitively larger and more readily absorbed than plant based iron. Plant based iron (non heme) is not only less than a steak, it is harder work to get from gut to blood stream. Even something like spinach and other leafy greens which are considered high in iron can also be packed with calcium, tannins, polyphenols and oxalic acid – all of which bind with iron and inhibit its absorption even further. So the vegetarian diet has built in limiters.

If you can’t quit the beef, then adding the iron chelators to the plate will definitely do some good. Foods to include: There is a whole range of foods that contain potent iron-chelating compounds. Adding them to a meal which contains iron rich foods, will decrease the levels of iron absorbed into the bloodstream or stored in the tissues.

Quercetin-rich foods have a potent iron-chelating capacity so the inclusion of fresh coriander leaf, dill, capers, red onions, buckwheat are really good choices.

Calcium binds to iron and prevents is absorption. Calcium rich foods include dairy (milk, yogurt, cheese and also whey protein), calcium fortified plant milks, calcium-fortified tofu and soya products, seeds (notably chia, sesame and poppy). High-calcium legumes include chickpeas, kidney beans, baked beans and navy beans.

Eggs contain a phosphoprotein called phosvitin which actively impairs the free absorption of iron. A single boiled egg can reduce the absorption of iron from the salad it is included in by more than 25%. Similarly egg mayonnaise will diminish iron bioavailability in a meal.

Turmeric is packed with a natural DNA repair and anti-inflammatory compound known as curcumin, which of itself would be good for some of the symptoms of iron overload but which it is also a powerful iron chelator – both in binding to excess iron and also by increasing the genetic expression of ferritin – our own natural iron-binding protein. A double sequester. Turmeric or a curcumin supplement can also support better control of age-related iron accumulations, particular with deposits in the brain, heart, and liver.

One thing that acerbates iron accumulations is a selenium deficiency. A poverty of dietary selenium can impact upon transferrin saturation and potentially boost serum iron concentration by 40-50% plus. Foods high in selenium include nuts and seed (in particular brazil nuts, sesame and sunflower seeds), dairy (in particular yoghurt and cottage cheese), mushrooms and oatmeal.

You can increase that effect by the beverage you chose to have the meal with. What to drink: The tannins in tea and coffee actively block iron absorption. Black tea can trigger inhibition of iron by more than 80%, fermented black teas by more again. Green teas also have high iron-chelating capacities but also are brilliant at limiting the oxidative stress that exacerbates iron overload symptoms. A cup of coffee at meal time can inhibit iron absorption by as much as 60%. Cow’s milk is rich in iron binding calcium. Soy and alternative milks are often high in phytic acid, which also binds iron and renders it absorbable to the blood stream.

Herbal help – Milk Thistle has two particularly potent polyphenols called silymarin and silybin known to bind iron and also affect a decrease in serum ferritin level. So on paper milk thistle would seem an idea therapy but with the caveat that milk thistle can affect enzymes involved in the processes of a range of prescription drugs including warfarin and other blood thinners, diazepam and other antianxiety meds, blood pressure medicines, birth control pills and hormone replacement therapy.

Again there is more than one option. Elderberry, goji berry, Japanese knotweed, lovage, St John’s wort and ginkgo biloba are all high in quercetin – a polyphenol that binds to free iron atoms and chelates them from the system. Quercetin is a potent antioxidant flavonoid known to prevent the DNA strand damage and effect tissue and cellular repair – it is particular useful in liver repair. Liver injury is a consequence of iron overload. Quercetin is readily available in supplement form.

Many herbal teas are rich in iron binding biochemicals, including tannins that make black tea so effective in treating iron overload. A simple cup of peppermint tea at meal time has the capacity to bind iron by 84%, vervain tea is active in the 60% range, while linden flower or chamomile tea can hold back around 50%. Other good teas include basil, buckwheat, hibiscus, and rosemary.

Coming soon – more on the myriad health benefits of herbal teas.

About The Holistic Gardener

author of wellness books, columnist, keynote speaker.
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